The blackening of an absent person's good name by telling a deliberate lie about him. This is sometimes called slander. The term "blackening" better describes the effects of calumny than do the more general terms "unjust violation" and "injury." Just as one's good name bestows a certain luster on a person, calumny either partially blackens or totally obscures this luster. Scripture tells us that "a good name is more precious than great riches" (Prv 22.1). In calumny a person steals part or all of another's good name, a good to which the person possesses a right in strict justice. Besides being a violation of the virtue of justice, calumny has the added malice of a lie.
Calumnious remarks can be slight offenses; thus one who tells a lie that does only slight harm to a person's reputation would be guilty of a venial sin. If a lie seriously blackens a person's reputation, the offense is grave. In any actual instance, the extent of the harm done to a person's reputation depends on the esteem in which the calumniated person was held by his fellow men, the crime, sin, or defect falsely attributed to him, and also the credibility of the calumniator. If the person calumniated is held in high esteem, one who falsely attributes a serious crime, sin, or defect to him is guilty of a serious violation of the person's rights. If, on the other hand, the calumniated person does not enjoy a good reputation, the damage to his reputation is slight. If the calumniating person has a reputation for lying or notably exaggerating, his listeners probably do not believe him anyway. In this case, however, the calumniator's evil intention makes his action seriously sinful.
Because calumny blackens a person's good name, the offender is obliged to repair the damage he has done. If other damage, e.g., monetary damage, has been caused and this was foreseen, the calumniator is obliged to repair this also. Theologians agree that a blackened reputation can never be fully restored. The calumniator, however, is obliged to do all he can to restore the person's good name; hence he must first of all withdraw his false statements. He must also speak in a friendly manner about the person, show deference to him, etc. The awareness that a blackened good name can never be adequately restored should serve as an added deterrent to calumnious speech.
See Also: defamation; detraction; reputation, moral right to.
Bibliography: b. h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis, 3 v. (8th ed. Paris 1949) 2:423–432. k. b. moore, The Moral Principles Governing the Sin of Detraction … (Washington 1950).
[k. b. moore]
cal·um·ny / ˈkaləmnē/ • n. (pl. -nies) the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone's reputation; slander. ∎ a false and slanderous statement.DERIVATIVES: ca·lum·ni·ous / kəˈləmnēəs/ adj.